MS Risk Blog

Reigniting the Papua Conflict

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On June 25th Papuan rebels reportedly took hostages and killed four workers after attacking a construction site in the west of Indonesia. The National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB), the military wing of the Papuan independence movement claimed responsibility for the recent events. Tensions between the Indonesian government and Papuan separatists have increased in recent months after an Indonesian officer was killed in April. The Indonesian government responded by dispatching 400 troops to the area, arresting Viktork Yeimo, a leader in the Papuan independence movement and be designating the group responsible as terrorists. The escalations in the last three months have marked a return to violence after a reduction in 2020.

New Guinea is the island that is home to both Papua New Guinea, an independent country, and West Papua and Papua, both parts of Indonesia. When the Dutch withdrew from Indonesia in 1949, they retained half of New Guinea until the early 1960s. When in 1962 they eventually left New Guinea, the island was eventually incorporated into Indonesia after a referendum where people voted to remain part of Indonesia. However, many Papuan people felt, and still feel today, that vote was rigged, and that they have a separate identity and would prefer to govern the island independently. As such they have been waging an insurgency against Indonesia for the last 50 years. Indonesia’s response to the Papuan quest for independence has been labelled a human rights violation for the way they handle the largely Christian population of Papua.

The attack on June 25th was carried out on people working on the controversial Trans Papua Highway “megaproject”. The road is planned to be around 4,000km long and is nearing completion. Papuan rebels have killed workers on the project before, killing 20 in 2018 in an event dubbed the Nduga Massacre. The road is being built through the country in an attempt to improve road access to areas off the coast of the island that contain oil and gas. There have been many objections to the project for environmental and practical reasons. Specifically, the potential for increased illegal logging the roads will provide and that easier travel may lead to increased inter-tribal violence. However, the Indonesian government suggest the road will provide improved access to healthcare and more availability of goods and services.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s initial response has been to increase military and police presence in the region in an attempt to crackdown on the rebels. After recent attacks on civilians, it is unlikely that the authoritarian leader will want to be seen acceding to any pressure from the rebels. So, it is highly likely that increased numbers of military and police personnel will lead to an increase in violence in the short-term. In the medium to long-term the completion of the Trans Papua Highway is likely to reduce the number of attacks on workers in the area, but it will not solve the Papua conflict.